Nancy, writer of the Spirit Lights the Way weblog, has written an article enquiring about the correct usage of awesome, awful, terrific, and terrible. For about a week now, I’ve had a note on my desk telling me to write on just that topic, so I thank her for encouraging me to get on with it.
It will come as no surprise to my readers that I disapprove of the sloppy use of language. Linguists may disagree with me, but it’s my contention that languages wear down because of lazy speakers and writers and that this is deplorable. Call it entropy in words. (Note that I didn’t write change. Some changes are good.) It’s the particular duty of writers to fight this. One of our jobs is to create beauty in language.
With that out of the way for the moment, let’s look at the words in question. Awe is reverential fear, and terror is fear in the extreme. The essential quality of both words is fear. Any use of these words that lacks this quality is incorrect. Now consider the endings -able, -ful, -ic, and -some. They all have shades of meaning that center around participating in the nature of something. The differences are subtle, but important. -able: something has a capacity, tendency, or worth; -ful: full of; -ic: of the nature of or belonging to; -some: like or to a considerable degree.
Here are some examples of correct use: Nuclear bombs are terrible. They have terrific power. The power of an atom is awful. The produce the awesome complexity of our world.
Take the sentences in order. A nuclear bomb is terrible because the degree of destruction that it can cause creates extreme fear. That being the case, its power is terrific.
On the other hand, the power that is in the atom fills us with awe and is therefore awful. The possibility of our lives, in the material sense, is derived from the nature of atoms. This power of creation is awesome.
But what about all the sloppy ways that people use these words? I worked for a period of time at a residential treatment facility for children. Whenever a child obeyed a command or behaved appropriately (a rare event, to be sure), one of my co-workers would declare the act to be awesome. Now we were told not to apply moral standards to the children, so saying that the child had been good wasn’t allowed, but at no point did I feel any awe in that place.
There is a tendency in human beings to exaggerate, to speak in superlatives and push descriptions to the extremes. Notice how often the word very shows up. We English teachers have been telling students that very is overused and because of that has become meaningless, so speakers often now say very, very, feeling that twice nothing must be something. The same sort of thing happens with awesome. Words like good, lovely, attractive, acceptable, etc. seem insufficient to someone who habitually exaggerates everything. Terrible has gone through the same process. The thing in question isn’t simply bad or unpleasant; it is the worst possible outcome, at least until the next unfortunate thing comes along.
Awful and terrific have gone through a curious flip-flop in usage. Correctly used, awful claims that something has a quality that fills us with awe, but we hear the word used now to mean that a thing is wretched or bad. Terrific tells us that something inspires terror, but lazy people use it to refer to something of which they greatly approve.
Some may say that language changes over time, and we just have to accept these new uses of the words, but look at what happens. Imagine that I’m trying to describe an explosion and write, “There was a terrific noise.” The word is used correctly there and describes exactly what is meant. The noise was loud in the extreme and causes terror. But if we let our language degenerate, we have to write, “There was a loud and frightening noise.” In place of one precise word, we now have three. Proliferation in adjectives creates weak writing. As William Strunk told us a while ago, we must omit needless words. One way to do this is to stop ruining our simple words by forcing them into meanings that they do not have.
Using language correctly takes work, but if humanity is to live up to its awesome potential, we must do that work.